If hazing comes as a natural byproduct of the secular college experience, maybe the Christian college equivalent is run-ins with the modesty police.
My induction into Protestant modesty culture happened on my first day of class at Cedarville when I was written up because my shirt was too low cut. An RA approached me, ironically, after I’d been bent over in prayer. She told me she could see down my shirt and asked to see my student ID.
I remember trying to laugh off the incident, wearing my rebelliousness (albeit unintentional) as a badge to write home to friends about. But when I went back to my room, I cried. I had wanted to look nice for the first day of classes, and I had tried to dress according to the rules in the handbook that, having just emerged from Roman Catholic culture, seemed totally foreign to me.
This instance would become the first of many times that I would attach a sense of shame to my chest—and my womanhood, by association.
Throughout college, I learned and abided by this manufactured canon of rules for women’s fashion and behavior established by school administrators, chapel speakers and female leaders on campus. One of the most bizarre rules was, “Never embrace a man. Your breasts are bombs: if pressed against a man, they could detonate a sexual fantasy in his mind.” (I’m aware of how ridiculous it sounds.) But they were adamant, and because of this, I feared my own body—because it housed the power to tempt a man from his convictions.
Another rule was, “Guard your heart,” which meant, “Disclose nothing. Reject invitations to hang out one-on-one. Show no outward interest in a man. Be constantly suspicious of your own emotions.” Because of this, I began to regard any strong attraction or romantic desire as dangerous and volatile. I hated myself if I got distracted by feelings. And (although I did not consciously think this way), my journal entries exhibit a conviction that to pursue relational intimacy with a man I wasn’t dating was sinful. That is to say, I was sinful because I wanted this.
The more I abided by these parameters, the more obsessed I became with being physically and emotionally modest. This hyperattentiveness led me to establish unreasonable expectations for my behavior and to monitor my conscience with a ruthlessness I would never impose on others. With such high expectations—“Feel nothing for no one! Draw no attention to your figure!”—I was bound to fail, and each failure brought on a new wave of shame.
After Cedarville, my bondage to unreasonable expectations loosened, but some residual behaviors carried over into friendships with men. I would think, “Why was that exchange so weird?” and wonder if was my guarded behavior that was unhealthy—but I couldn’t explain why.
It wasn’t until recently, upon listening to a radio interview with Dr. Larry Crabb, that I learned a theology of gender and the body that liberated me.
What I learned was this: male and female bodies are parables for the way men and women should relate. Men, being uniquely made to reflect one facet of God’s character, feel most masculine (that is, “most happy to be alive as a male”) when they strongly enter situations to recall and tell the story of God. The word used for male in Genesis 1, zakar, means "one who remembers something important and then does it."
Women, uniquely made to reflect another facet of God, feel most feminine (that is, “most happy to be alive as a woman”) when they receive men, other women, and children with warmth and grace. In doing so, they nurture that person.
Dr. Crabb then went onto explain that a woman who is invitational (rather than guarded) reflects God and relates like God. If others are attracted to her God-given beauty (external and internal) and want to move toward her with Godly movement, she will be open to receive them and equipped to nourish them according to her gifts.
After I had heard this illustration, I felt an immense burden lift. For years, evangelical culture (well-intentioned though it is) had been encouraging me to guard and hide myself—actions contrary to my nature and design. No wonder I felt so frustrated and defeated.
I understand that the canon of modesty rules was written with the best intentions: to protect men and women from sexual sin. But those rules perpetuated a culture of fear and shame in my life that sealed me off from communion with men and barred me from acting out the parable present in my body. My breasts—the very instruments created to symbolize my opportunity to nourish the church and world—were written off as instruments of seduction and vice.
So if compiling a list of dos and don’ts for women’s dress cripples a woman by causing her to feel ashamed of her body, what can she do to restore a healthy sense of self?
We have this trampoline in our backyard. My parents bought it in high school, thinking its presence would encourage me to get exercise and lose weight. I remained chubby, and the trampoline became symbolic of how I’d failed. I hated that trampoline. Throughout college, it loomed in the backyard, wet and rusting.
Last week, my parents threw me a going away party, and I wanted to make sure the younger girls at the party would have a space to hang out and something fun to do. So I dismantled the dangerous parts of the trampoline and cleaned up what was left. When I finished scrubbing, I looked at it from a distance and thought, “How beautiful it looks.”
That’s when God strongly entered my mind and said, “This is your life’s work: to take things that you were ashamed of and make them beautiful so younger girls can use them.”
After I examined, fixed and cleaned the trampoline, it became mine. I took ownership of it. And for the first time in my life, I actually liked the trampoline.
Women, in the same way, we need to figure out what it means to take ownership of our bodies and live in them with purpose, dignity and quiet conviction. This ownership will shine not only in the way we dress, but in the way we regard, interact with and speak about each other.
I am convinced that in learning to perform the parable of our bodies—men as strong rememberers and interveners, women as kind inviters and nourishers—we will see shame defeated and life breathed into our relationships.